Winning and losing is a mug’s game, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. All gain ends in loss anyway, and trying to achieve victory over others is unpleasant and delusional.
I’ve always loved sports—horseback riding, golf, running. I once asked my father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, what he thought about football, since it’s a sport that didn’t exist in Tibet. He answered, “They’ve been winning and losing the same game for a hundred years.” I was struck by his humor, but even more so by the subtle truth behind what he said. Over those hundred years, games were won and games were lost. The players may have gained endurance, discipline, and camaraderie, but in the end, they did not make any progress, because they were always playing with the goal of gain.
In samsara—the endless cycle of suffering—we are always winning and losing the same game, somehow expecting to make progress. We spend part of our life trying to get it together, and the other part watching it fall apart. We don’t realize that if we try to gain something, we had better be ready to lose it. As soon as we have time—“I have a whole hour free”—we are losing it. We work hard to have a relationship, and then it breaks up. We come together for a holiday party, and then it’s over. We buy a new car, and then the fender gets a dent.
Everything we gain is subject to loss. Although this is as true as the sky is blue, we keep trying to make gain permanent in order to try to bring about happiness for “me.” We think, “If only so-and-so would love me, I would be happy,” “If only things would change, I would be happy,” “If only things would stay the way they are, I would always be happy,” and it only leads to heartache. This kind of wanting involves a lot of hope and fear, all based on denial of a simple truth: all the pleasure the world can offer eventually turns to pain. And trying to hold on to pleasure only causes more pain.
Why do we put all that effort into gain, when in the end we are going to lose it? Indulging in gain and loss is like inducing amnesia. We’re always finding something new to gain, which makes us forget about the last thing that we lost, just a few seconds ago. Fabricating this chain of desire is how we keep ourselves in samsara. Unlike anything we own, this pattern can last from lifetime to lifetime. Contemplation allows us to step back and see it from a deeper point of view, to be less mesmerized by it. Then we’re less apt to work fervently toward gain.
The Buddha said that our existence is marked by impermanence, selflessness, and suffering. When we contemplate this insight in our morning meditation, we’re letting the truth about existence penetrate our being. We’re bringing that truth into our own experience: whatever we gather, we will lose. Even this body will dissolve. To contemplate gain and loss is not to say that we can escape this reality, but it helps us stop being fooled into thinking that worldly gain will bring permanent happiness. This is how we bring our mind into harmony with the truth about gain and loss. We realize that gain and loss is just an illusion—one that we’ve allowed to rule our lives. When we stop being baffled, surprised, or insulted by it, we will no longer experience the highs and lows that accompany gain and loss.
We often lose our perspective about gain and loss, because the modern world is very competitive. With that attitude, we are in a perpetual rub with our environment. We’re playing the game of “What about me?”: “If I gain something, I will be happy. If I lose something, I’ll be miserable.” That kind of friction simply wears us down. Competition doesn’t enable us to accomplish what we want. It just adds the grind of trying to gain by outdoing somebody else. It makes us aggressive—unable to relax our own mind. We become susceptible to anger, which destroys any virtue that we’ve gathered.
Trying to manipulate the environment by promoting ourselves and hoping for others to fail is unpleasant and delusional. We are only as good as we are, and forcing another person down doesn’t make us any better. Competition is unstable. Even when we win, we have not really won. We always have to prove ourselves again. If we want to make progress on a spiritual path, we cannot base our worth on succeeding or failing at one event.
When we compete, we are honing our skills of aggression. In abstaining from a competitive state of mind, we are taking confidence in our worthiness as a human being who can cultivate wisdom and compassion. That potential can’t be gained or lost. If we develop it, we’re able to live life spaciously, with pleasure. We don’t fret about what others are or are not doing. We appreciate others. When they outperform us, we don’t see it as belittlement, but as an opportunity to relax into the outrageous possibility of not being attached to gain and loss.
Gain and loss are meaningless preoccupations that we use to foster the illusion of a permanent self. We have been preoccupied this way for many lifetimes, winning and losing the same game over and over again. The point of contemplating gain and loss is to stop wasting our time. This life is precious, our time is precious, and our mind is precious. True victory is not being caught by the illusion of permanence. It is not being hooked by negative emotions. It comes about when we free ourselves from the illusion of “me.” That’s why the Buddha is called “the victorious one”—he is victorious over ignorance, desire, and self-infatuation. Unlike ourselves, the Buddha doesn’t see the dreamlike quality of existence in hindsight. He sees it now. The Buddha sees now—just like the past and the future—as a dream, as an illusion.
Prajna—“best knowledge”—tells us that as long as we believe that aggression and competition can bring true gain, we will always be playing the game of samsara. If we can see through our own ignorance, we will no longer act out of attachment to conventional gain and loss. We’ll no longer need to prove ourselves again each season. We can outwit the cycle of suffering by investing our energy in the cause of lasting happiness, which is letting go of “me.”
Ancient meditation texts tell us that after becoming familiar with the truth of impermanence, we should practice as if our hair were on fire. What do we practice? We practice meditation, generosity, patience, humor, and helping others. When we really understand impermanence, we live with appreciation of our good fortune, as if it’s our last day on earth. We wake up in the morning excited that we can use every moment of our life in a way that will lead to wisdom. When we do this, we become naturally and spontaneously light-hearted. We are not caught in the game of bad and good. We have what Tibetans call tropa—delight. All that remains is to be totally outrageous and take a leap by helping others. This is how to be truly victorious.